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HOME > Short Stories > Known to the Police > CHAPTER VII THE LAST DREAD PENALTY
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For more than half a century I have taken a great interest in those who, of malice aforethought, and after considerable pains, succeed in taking the lives of others. I remember as if it were to-day the excitement that arose when William Palmer was charged with the murder of John Parsons Cook. For fifty years a vivid impression of all the events and episodes connected with the remarkable trial of that remarkable man has remained with me. I was then a boy of eleven, but Palmer was well known to the boys of Rugeley, and to myself amongst them. Palmer attended church on Sundays, when racing engagements allowed, and sat in his family pew, fairly close to the schoolboys, of whom I happened to be one. He was most particular about behaviour in church—not only his own, but that of the schoolboys also. Even now I can see him coming into church with some member of his family, with firm walk and clanging heel. I can remember how he stood up to pray into his top-hat a lengthened prayer on entering his pew. I remember, too, that his clothing was always black,[Pg 126] and that a crape mourning band was always in evidence on his hat, for funerals were numerous in the Palmer family. But we lads thought nothing of the funerals; but we knew that Palmer's eye was upon us, if we did not behave discreetly in church; we knew he had more than once pulled the ears of boys that misbehaved. We knew, too, that Palmer's mother had an easily accessible garden, in which were plenty of juicy apples and toothsome cherries.

Apart from his staid and correct manner at church, Palmer was a bluff, hearty fellow, well known and well liked in our little town, where he frequently doctored the poor for nothing; and it was always understood that Palmer's brother George, a solicitor, was also equally ready to give his services free of charge to the poor. It was only natural, then, that the Palmers were liked in our town—for it was a very small town. Grave faces, I remember, had been plentiful in Rugeley for some weeks and things had been going on that we boys did not understand. We knew the names of Palmer's horses, and felt any amount of interest in Blinkbonny and Goldfinder; but we did not understand the gloom that had settled on the town, for older people spoke with bated breath, and when boys drew near the conversation ceased or the lads were driven away. We knew the name of Palmer was whispered continuously. What did it all mean? At length mystery, reticence, and whispered suspicions were useless. Palmer had been arrested for the murder of John Parsons Cook, whose body lay in our churchyard, and whose funeral we had witnessed.[Pg 127] Now the excitement began. Rugeley became almost the hub of the universe. Strange people arrived from everywhere, and the quiet town became a Babel.

I remember with what awe we gazed at Cook's grave after the body had been exhumed and returned to its resting-place. We knew that some part of the body had been taken away and sent to London for great men to examine. We boys even discussed the ultimate destination of the parts taken away, and wondered if they would ever get back to poor Cook. How well I remember the exciting events of that long and dramatic trial in London! Rugeley people were poor in those days, and newspapers were dear, so we borrowed where we could, and lent to others when we possessed. I read aloud the records of that trial to all sorts of poor people, so I have cause to remember it. I prosecuted Palmer, and I defended him; I was witness, and I was judge; I claimed a triumphant acquittal, and I demanded his condemnation; I cross-examined the great analyst, and even at that age began to learn something of the nature and effects of strychnine. I thrilled with it all, but I believed Palmer to be innocent, and in a measure I was proud of a townsman who could stand up bravely against all the big men in London and show no fear. Oh, but he was a brave man! He must be innocent! And when the trial was all over, and Palmer was brought to Stafford to pay the penalty of his crime, do I not remember how all the world rushed to Stafford to see him hanged? Ay, I remember how people tramped all day through[Pg 128] Rugeley to Stafford, and how they stood all through the night in Stafford streets waiting, waiting for eight o'clock the next morning. Yes, I remember it all; and I remember, too, that the cherries in a certain garden nevermore had any attractions! But I remember, too, that Palmer died game, showing no fear, betraying no anxiety, with a good appetite to the last and a firm step to the scaffold.

Surely Palmer was innocent, and was supported by the knowledge of his innocence. Murderers had fearsome consciences; they were haunted by a sense of their guilt, and by the eyes or the spirits of their victims.

So I felt and so I reasoned about murderers when I was a boy. I have since those days had many opportunities of correcting my judgment, and now I no longer believe that a bold, cool, collected behaviour, together with the possession of a good appetite, is synonymous with innocence. For I have seen enough to justify me in saying that a calm and brave bearing is more likely to be indicative of guilt than of innocence. But the public and certain portions of the press still translate callous behaviour into a proof of innocence, and sometimes convert prisoners into heroes.

No greater mistake could be made, for a prisoner's behaviour has nothing do with to his guilt or innocence. On the whole, fear or distress are far more likely to indicate innocence than they are to denote guilt. This I believe to hold good of all prisoners, not only of those charged with the capital offence. I have failed[Pg 129] to observe in prisoners who were undoubtedly guilty the furtive look that is supposed to be peculiar to guilt. I have watched closely and have spoken confidentially to many hundreds, but their eyes met mine as naturally as those of a child. I have been compelled to the conclusion that not only is a bold bearing consistent with the deepest guilt, but also that a natural bearing and a childlike trustfulness are by no means to be taken as signs of innocence. Of the behaviour of innocent people when charged with crime, fortunately, we do not get many opportunities of observation; still, I have seen some, and can bear testimony that they were a great deal more confused, excited, and unreliable than prisoners who were undeniably guilty. Such prisoners often contradict themselves, and sometimes depart from the truth when attempting to defend themselves. It is palpable to everyone that they feel their position, and fear the consequences. I have seen such astounding coolness and presence of mind, coupled with apparent candour and sincerity, among guilty prisoners that when I know of a prisoner exhibiting these qualities I almost instinctively suspect him. An innocent man, in his anxiety, may prevaricate through fear and confusion; but the veritably guilty man is careful in these matters, though he may be sometimes a little too clever.

The psychology of prisoners has, then, for years been a favourite study with me, and a very interesting study I have found it. In my endeavours to discover the state of mind that existed and caused certain prisoners to commit[Pg 130] serious crimes, I have sometimes discovered, almost hidden in the dark recesses of the mind, some little shadow of some small thing that to me seemed quite absurd, but which to the prisoner loomed so large, so real, and so important, that he regarded it as a sufficient justification for his deed. To myself the crime and the something in the prisoner's mind appeared to have no possible connection, yet unmistakably, if the prisoners were to be believed, they were cause and effect. Now, from this kind of mania—for such it undoubtedly is—small and ridiculous as it seems—and I have met it too often not to be certain as to its existence—a double question is presented: What is the cause of that little something in the prisoner's mind? and why has it caused the prisoner to commit a certain action? I have never been able to get any light upon these questions, but have had to content myself with the knowledge that the mental equipment of that class of criminals is altogether different to that of ordinary individuals. I am not here speaking of a defined mania that dominates the life, stirs the passions, and leads directly to the perpetration of a crime—cause and effect in such a case are obvious, though, of course, the cause of the cause is still obscure—but I am speaking of silly little somethings that float about in certain minds, that refuse to be ejected, that entail much misery and suffering, and finally crime. Possibly this state of mind may be the outcome of indigestion, even as an extra severe sentence upon a prisoner may be the outcome of indigestion in a judge: for it is quite possible to suppose a case[Pg 131] in which judge and prisoner suffered from a like cause; but the one has committed a crime because of it, and the other inflicts unmerited punishment because of it. Two things are very clear to me: first, that our judges and magistrates ought to be in the very best of health when performing their duties; secondly, that pathological causes enter very largely into the perpetration of crime. Ill-health may make a judge irritable and severe, and so distort his judgment, and excuses are made for him; for it is whispered he is a martyr to gout, indigestion, or some equally trying malady. If so, he certainly ought not to be a judge, for health and temper are absolutely necessary for one who has to administer justice and act as the arbiter of other people's fate. But this excuse is not made for prisoners. Yet in hundreds of cases it might honestly be made; for while they may not have been influenced by gout or indigestion, they have been influenced by pathological causes, and the two things are equal.

I am persuaded, after many years' close observation and many years' friendship with criminals, that disease, mental or physical, is a tremendous factor in the causation of crime. The "criminal class" is often spoken of, and it might be supposed that there is a distinct class of people to whom the appellation applies. My experience teaches me that there is no "criminal class," but there are plenty of criminals. The low forehead and the square jaw, the scowling eye and the stubbly beard, do not denote criminality; the receding forehead, the weak eye, and the almost absence of chin, do not indicate criminal instincts.[Pg 132] Nothing of the sort. All these things are consistent with decent living, a fair amount of intelligence, and some moral purpose. On the other hand, a well-built body, a well-shaped head, a handsome face, a clean skin, and a bright eye are consistent with the basest criminality. Some of the worst criminals I have met—real and dangerous criminals—were handsome as Apollo. But there does exist a class—and, unfortunately, a very large class—who have very limited intelligence, who appear to be retrogressing physically, mentally, and morally, of whom a large proportion commit various kinds of offences—not from criminal instincts, but from stunted or undeveloped intelligence and lack of reasoning power.

But I am digressing, for it is not my purpose in this chapter to speak of criminals in general, but rather of those whom I have personally met charged with murder, and who were convicted, some paying the full penalty. These I want to consider more fully. From this list I must eliminate man-slayers who had killed in the heat of passion or in a drunken quarrel, for they were not murderers at heart. Their mental condition was understandable, and their bearing while undergoing trial is beside the question. Neither do I wish to include married or single women who had killed their offspring at childbirth or soon after, for they are outside my consideration. But I want to speak plainly about those who had committed prearranged murders, and carried them out with considerable skill.

In refreshing my memory about these, I find that they held several characteristics in common:

[Pg 133]

1. Not one of them exhibited any sense of shame, no matter how disgraceful the attendant circumstances.

2. Not one of them exhibited any nervousness or fear of the consequences.

3. Those who admitted their guilt justified their actions, and appeared to believe that they had done the right thing.

4. Those who denied their guilt, denied it with cool and positive assurance, and denied it to the last with almost contempt, as if the charge was more an insult than anything serious.

5. None of them betrayed the slightest sorrow.

6. Every one of them appeared of sound mind so far as reasoning powers were concerned, for they were quite lucid, and remarkably quick to see a point in their favour.

7. None of them were fully able to realize the position in which they stood, as ordinary people must have realized it.

Of course, everyone will admit that the man or woman who can plan and carry out a murder, whether that murder is likely to be detected or not, is not, and cannot be, a normal person; but what we require to know is where they depart from the normal, and how and why they depart from the normal.

I would like to say that the particulars just given are the results not only of my observation of prisoners when in the dock, but also of many personal and private conversations with them. In a word, I do not consider that any of these prisoners were thoroughly sane. It may be said—it is often said—that in human nature "we find[Pg 134] what we look for," and there is truth in the saying; but when trying to understand these people, I had not the slightest idea of what I was seeking. I knew there must be some cause that led to the crime, something out of the ordinary in their minds, but what it was and how to find it was more than I could tell. So I have watched, have talked and listened. For these prisoners were always ready to talk: there was no secrecy with them, excepting with regard to the crime; otherwise they were talkative enough. It takes some time and patience to discover whether or not in people there is a suspicion of brain trouble. They appear so natural that several lengthened conversations may be required before anything at all is revealed. I trust that it will not be thought that I am betraying confidences that poor wretches have given to me, for no prisoner, guilty or innocent, ever confided in me without such confidences being considered sacred; but as their cases are not of recent date, no harm can be done, and possibly good may ensue, if I give some particulars that I gained regarding their mental peculiarities. Being anxious to ascertain how far my experience was confirmed by the experience of others, quite recently I put a question to the chaplain of one of our largest prisons, and whose experience was much greater than my own in this particular direction. I asked him whether he had ever known anyone who was about to suffer the death penalty for a premeditated and cleverly contrived murder exhibit any sense of remorse, sorrow, or fear. His answer was exactly what I expected—"that he had performed his last sad offices for a [Pg 135]considerable number of such prisoners, and that he had discovered neither fear nor remorse in any of them; with one exception, they all denied their guilt." I want it to be perfectly clear that I am speaking now about murderers who committed premeditated crimes that had been cleverly carried out, impromptu murders not being considered.

I now propose to give a sufficient number of examples to prove my point. In a poor street within two hundred yards of my own door I had frequently seen a beautiful boy of about four years old. His appearance, his clothing, his cleanliness, and even his speech, told unmistakably that he was not belonging to the poor. I knew the old people that he lived with, and felt quite sure that it was not owing to their exertions that he was so beautifully dressed and kept so spotlessly clean, for they were old, feeble, and very poor. But the old people had a daughter living with them, and it was the daughter who had charge of the child, for the little fellow was a "nurse-child." Good payment must have been given for the care of the child, for it was the only source of income for the household. The foster-mother was devoted to the boy, and he reflected every credit upon her love and care. Many times when I have met them I have spoken a cheery word to the little fellow, never dreaming of the coming tragedy, or that I should meet his real mother and discuss his death w............
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